Film, Media, and SF at GT

Jay P. Telotte

Film and Georgia Tech seem a natural pairing.  Film is, after all, a technologically-based art form, in both its creation and its audience reception/appreciation.  And its evolution into perhaps the dominant contemporary art form—a claim slightly challenged by its near kin, television—is manifest by a series of technological developments that have left their mark in many other areas of our lives—concerns with image reproduction, sound capture and amplification, color processes, screen development, computer-generated imaging—enabling various other entertainment and educational technologies that are today a pervasive part of human experience.  The history of film and other visual media simply opens onto many dimensions of our technological experience, as well as of a modern technological education.

But in today’s world, big-time science is constantly developing big-time and sometimes quite dangerous technology that we cannot help but run into and be surprised by. 

The study of film involves more than just understanding the history, theory, and criticism of a highly significant art form.  It also requires that we develop some understanding of certain scientific principles and technological processes that can help us to understand the extent to which, even when thoroughly engrossed in the work of art, our enjoyment and even education are technologically-enabled.  Of course, donning 3-D glasses at the local multiplex to watch a computer-animated film makes that context at least momentarily obvious to us, but multiple variations on that technological context condition every movie experience, and we need to become more mindful of how other aspects of our lives and cultural experience are also technologically enabled, as we always, in various ways, see through the lenses and on the screens that society provides. Focusing on films—and television—about technology, particularly on science fiction in its various media forms, can facilitate such an awareness.

LMC has offered multiple media courses focused on the world of science and technology, among them, “Film and the Machine Age,” “The Science Fiction Film,” “Science Fiction Television,” “Across the Screens: Adapting Science Fiction,” and “Global Science Fiction.”  These courses allow students to explore a variety of technological depictions and track how cultural attitudes have changed towards the machine, space exploration, urban design, the robot/android/cyborg, the scientist (mad and otherwise), and even research itself.  Through them we can observe how in various ways our culture has sought to address issues of both technophobia and technophilia, even to suggest ways of balancing such attitudes.

These courses also reflect the larger popularity of the genre, and allow us to explore why SF has such a prominent place in today’s media landscape.  I want to suggest three very simple reasons that might help explain that popularity, and in turn, reasons why we should be paying closer attention to, even, as part of our interest in film and television, studying SF’s history and characteristics.  The first, and perhaps somewhat superficial answer, is because we can do it; funding and technology have both changed, allowing for the genre’s proliferation.  A second is that we have to do it; science and technology, it seems, keep getting in the way of our lives, popping up in full view and practically forcing us to take notice.  And a third is that we simply should do it; it makes sense and helps us make sense—of ourselves, our world, and our futures.

We can do more and better SF for many reasons, not the least of which is the sheer availability of both equipment and outlets.  Films (and more broadly video) have become relatively easy to make thanks to the impact of computing power and low-cost, high-quality digital cameras—even cameras available on smartphones and tablets.  Various independent film festivals offer a ready audience/outlet for material, as do established venues like the Syfy Channel and a proliferation of cable/satellite channels.  And with that increasing number of venues and broadcast slots there comes more potential money available for developing SF films and programs.  If you have an idea for a show that might have an audience, and if you know the right people, you can get a hearing; if you’re convincing and have skill, you could get seed money or turn to Crowdsourcing; and if that pilot is any good, there is a strong chance for an airing before a national audience, for at least a try-out.  But even smaller ambitions—and smaller resources—also stand a chance of reaching fruition and finding an audience in an age of i-phones, laptap-loaded editing tools, and YouTube.  “Broadcast yourself,” in fact, is the come-on for YouTube, suggesting not only the ability to make films, but the alluring possibility of almost instantly showcasing the self, speaking directly to an audience of millions.

I also suggest that we almost have to do more SF and learn more about it.  That perhaps strange assertion comes from the recognition that we live in a highly technologized society, in a world where we cannot get away from technology, as well as the science that creates it and the reason that conceives it.  In fact, that triadic relationship—of reason, science, and technology—is one that we live with, that informs all that we do today, and that finds its way into so many of our films and programs.  So we have to recognize how the elements of science and technology invariably show up more and more, working their way into our narratives just as they are worked, almost imperceptibly, into our lives.  And of course we need only note how often science is becoming woven even into many popular films and programs that make no pretense to being SF, including television shows like Modern Marvels, How Do They Do It, and Rocket City Rednecks.  But in today’s world, big-time science is constantly developing big-time and sometimes quite dangerous technology that we cannot help but run into and be surprised by.   What our media renditions of those run-ins help to do is prepare us for such encounters, make them somewhat less surprising or discomfiting, clearly a part of our world.
So I would suggest that this inevitable encounter is a good thing and gives reason to my even stranger-sounding third suggestion that we should be viewing and studying more SF.  That “should” has almost a moralizing ring to it, as if implying that SF were somehow good for us.  But it may well be.  If we accept some of the previous premise, that we are going to keep tripping over science and technology anyway, then it follows that trying to understand it for our individual mental health and for our larger cultural health is important.  Genre stories serve as important cultural highlights and problem solving devices.  Through their central concerns those stories echo our cultural anxieties, and through their conventions help us make sense of those things.  The more popular media genres in any period have that status, that level of popularity, I would argue, largely because their trappings are best suited for helping us make sense of, better understand, or simply find some way of being reconciled to the culture of the period.  And in this technologically and scientifically-driven era, SF film and television, especially as we deal with it at GT, helps in this task.

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